Trump Era Reading List Vol. 1: Don Quixote
I begin every year with a list of books I hope to read by year’s end. These are usually the classics, big name tent pole texts that decorate the distinguished bookshelves of those intending to read them and the even more distinguished intellects of those that actually do. Of course impulse-choices sidetrack me, things that look entertaining or which speak to the moment. This past year, 2016, those two circles overlapped. With the rise and success of Donald Trump I began to consider the nature and role of delusion in the mind of the power hungry and there on my yearly list of intended reading was Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
Don Quixote is one of those foundational stories we all feel like we know. We use it as metaphor for anything or anyone that seems misguided or off center. Even though it’s a nearly 900-page book in an arcane style, which few ever actually read all the way through. We all feel like we know it and can apply it to our understanding of the world. In the face of a world that felt like it was spinning well off its axis, and based on what I thought I knew of the story, I figured it would be the right book for the time.
I opened it expecting a kind of Trump Quixote and Sancho Pence parable. A prescient satire I could take some comfort in as I recognized and chortled at the buffoon tilting at windmills. What I gained instead was a much broader insight into the state of the regular people who believed in and elected Trump.
Trump is who he has always been. There was a time when we saw him for the punch line he is, the inflated conman, only rich because he is a cheat and only a cheat because he is not intelligent enough to become honestly rich. Hideous on a scale that only wealth coupled with moral vacancy can account for. I grew up thinking of him as an object lesson more so than a person. He was a living breathing cultural parable, proof of the axiom that wealth does not make you good and money cannot buy happiness. A hideous canker on the visage of American prosperity; even before anyone had voted for him in a public contest he was the highly visible incarnation of our lowest instincts. And for some reason I thought we all understood that.
Don Quixote loses his mind over the course of a long life. He has seen the mundane world around him everyday and long recognized it for what it was. But he loses himself in entertainments, his mind replaces reality with the imaginary, perhaps because the imaginary is simpler and gives him the role of the hero. If something goes against him it is a conspiracy of enchanters. If others do not see what he sees it is because their perceptions are perverted by insanity. The insane will forever see the rational as insane.
As I read the book it became increasingly clear that I was not seeing a parable of Trump but of the American electorate. As Quixote makes error after error and only becomes more entrenched in his delusion, as he sustains beating after beating and takes it as proof of his glorious calling I grew almost despondent at how old the recognition of our cultural condition was. When the anchors of the story, The Priest and The Barber, attempt to call his delusions into question by pointing out that his texts are fiction he defends them vociferously with no more evidence than saying in different words that they are true. I looked up from that page and saw the story of the gunman at the pizza parlor convinced he would find the evidence of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton.
We have lived with Trump for so long and his talent for self-promotion has become so dominant that to paraphrase Cervantes, our minds have dried up. Truth is falsehood, self-destruction is heroic victory, and Trump was elected on the belief that we stand on the cusp of restoring a mythical lost age of romance and nobility. Yet all we have done is make ourselves legendary fools.
The big question that remains after reading the book is what exactly is our delusion? What have we mistaken Trump to be? Do we imagine him a slash and burn capitalist who will make America profitable? If so we have sorely misunderstood both the nature of government and capitalism. Do we imagine him a heroic populist who will rescue the plight of the forgotten man? If so that is the very essence of delusion. Trump has gold furniture and a record of fleecing whomever he can however he can. Will we also grab anchors to help us float? Or are we perfectly clear-eyed and see his election as an act of vengeful destruction against a system too big for us to understand and too various to address all our needs. If so then we are worse than delusional. We are the villains of our own story, burning down our patrimony because it feels like too much trouble to fix. In that case we do not even have the recourse of noble motives. We are simply lazy and vindictive and deserve our fate.